While some continue to doubt the effect the human race has had on climate change across our planet, there is no doubting that tackling climate change is high on the political agenda. 183 countries have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which represents a legally binding commitment to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Much of the effort is being channelled on to reducing the amount of CO2 that we emit into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas.
Road vehicles account for 19% of domestic greenhouse gas emissions in the UK so it should be no surprise that this is a major area of focus in reducing our carbon footprint. As such, the UK has committed to reducing the CO2 output of new car registrations to an average that is no higher than 130 g/km by 2012 and to an average no higher than 95 g/km by 2020.
Hitting these targets is largely dependent on the accessibility of vehicles that run on low carbon fuels. One of these alternatives, hydrogen fuel cells, is still too expensive to produce (and being some 10 years away from being practical according to government projections) while one of the other great hopes, biofuels, are being challenged on their environmental credentials, particularly given the high profile impact it has had on food supplies. Both fuel types continue to be the recipient of significant financial investment and, with good reason, have the potential to provide a long-term solution in the replacement of fossil fuels.
The UK government, however, is going to focus it’s energies on encouraging the uptake of electric and hybrid cars, for the short-term at least. The government is serious about this but, at the same time, is realistic about the challenges it faces. They are fully aware of the stigma electric cars have attracted due to their characteristicly ugly looks, poor performance, poor driving range (try taking a G-Wiz further than 40 miles) and an incredibly long re-charging time (about 7 hours on the mains).
There are plenty of incentives for manufacturers to resolve the issues of performance and there is plenty of evidence that progress is being made. Nissan Motor Company, for example, recently announced that, with the help of the government, they are planning to open plants to manufacture their advanced lithium-ion batteries in Sunderland. They also recently announced the launch of the Nissan Leaf which they plan to lead with as the first mass produced electric car, producing 100,000 by 2012. We even now have our first electric sports car in the form of the Tesla Roadster.
Of course consumers may need a little more encouragement if they are to trade-in their current car for an eco-friendly alternative. For this reason the government has committed £230 million to fund a £2k to £5k incentive to encourage consumers to buy electric. The incentive is due to launch in 2011. Similarly, £30 million has been allocated to encourage the development of an infrastructure of electric re-charging units that plug directly into the national grid, charging your car in under 10 minutes.
It seems to me that many of the right steps are being taken. We’ll potentially have the cars and the infrastructure to make electric a goer. But somehow I still have my doubts about just how popular electric cars will be. I can’t help shaking this nagging feeling that it will take more than an incentive to get people to lose their beloved petrol car. Maybe it’s because people, in isolation, do not feel they can have any impact on climate change. But there is also the fact that, in our Western society, the car remains one of our precious symbols of status and trading that in is a difficult pill to swallow.
But then what is the alternative? Whether you are a sceptic about climate change or not, the worst case scenarios are so terrible that it seems too big a gamble to ignore. Whole species face extinction, lives are in danger and, according to The Stern Report, not taking action could cost from five to 20 per cent of global GDP every year, now and in the future.
So how do you feel about the future of motoring? What would it take to convince you to trade in your car for an ultra-low carbon alternative? Is it about performance, looks, driving range? Or would you never consider doing such a thing?